So much of what we conceive of as the artist is cloaked in the myth of the “natural,” the effortless being who becomes one and the same as the character perceived in the midst of their work, whether it be on stage, screen or elsewhere. It is a concept that haunts even our daily lives, at every moment putting to question what we are trying to represent or embody as we make our way through the world, worrying us with thoughts of whether we’re being “natural” enough—in image, style, confidence and identity—and the physical trappings these things inevitably become tangled with. For Danielle Moné Truitt, a personal reckoning with these issues came about some years back, when she discovered a tiny hairless patch behind her ear. Following a brief crisis of confidence (in which a few more follicles temporarily followed suit from sheer stress), Truitt sublimated her experience into a series of one-woman plays entitled The Nappy Hair and Other Black Girl Blues, the first of which, called simply 3, saw her taking on the roles of three very different women and their struggles amidst the tightly knit concepts of feminine self-esteem and hair.
Her ability to single-handedly captivate an audience of any size with such genuine, yes, natural, grace must go some way towards explaining her growing success as a performer. With numerous plays already under her belt, in 2009 she made a crucial behind-the-scenes contribution to cinema in bringing the first Black American Disney princess to life, as the video reference for Tiana in The Princess and the Frog and voicing another character, Georgia, in that film.
The same regal poise caught by a bevy of animators’ brushstrokes can also be seen in Truitt’s lead role as Rebecca “Rebel” Knight in Rebel on BET, as a police officer who quits the force and becomes a private investigator following a tragic incident between officers of the department and a close family member. Mixing politics and provocation with fast-paced entertainment, Rebel recalls many of the spirited justice-and-vengeance flicks of the golden age of blaxploitation cinema, but what seems to be exploited this time more than anything is the still glaring rarity of heroines like her on television today.
Her natural range, from passion to pathos, the musical theater in her background paired with what Rebel’s executive producer John Singleton described as “an edge,” has made her formidably well-rounded and versatile as a performer. Off-screen, her commitment to church life, activism and art continues to widen her positive impact in numerous arenas. Below, we catch up with Truitt about her artistry, the causes she has committed herself to, and how both are inseparable.
You’ve been involved with acting most of your life. What was your first brush with it?
I guess you could say my first brush with it was when I was in sixth grade. I auditioned for the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast. I did a poem and got cast. Basically we just lip-synced to the soundtrack [laughs]. That was my first experience with theater. After that, I wasn’t too involved in theater. Then, in college, my theater professor asked me if I was a major, and I said no, and she asked why, she said, “You really have a natural knack for acting. You should think about becoming a major,” and I said, “Maybe I’ll minor in it,” and she was like, “No, you should major in it.” She encouraged me to audition in a play, and I ended up getting the lead part. I played a 60-year-old woman in the play, and it was just such a great experience to go through the audition/rehearsals, transforming from a 19-year-old to a 60-year-old. By the time we opened, I walked out on the stage, and I just felt like this is what I wanted to do, so I changed my major to theater, and acting has become something that I feel really confident in.
How did you get involved with Disney?
At the time I was living here in L.A. My agent got an audition call for the voice of Princess Tiana. But they were only accepting name-talent, known actresses for that. A few months later, she got another casting call—the video reference for the character. I had no idea what that was at the time. Basically, you’re the person that they draw; you do all the body movements, facial expressions and lip-sync to the songs and dialogue. Then they’ll bring the character to life from that. I auditioned for it and ended up getting it, and it was such a cool process to see how talented those animators are. They’re brilliant. They literally just videotaped me doing the scenes and singing and dancing, then I would come back the next month and see myself as a cartoon—with all of my facial expressions and everything—it was incredible. All of this took about nine months; at first she [Tiana] looked exactly like me, like every feature of my face, then after awhile they kind of morphed my look. Since we had such a great time working together, they offered me a smaller voice role in the movie, Georgia. So I do look back on my first role as a Disney princess and am still amazed I got to help create one. I’m so glad to have been part of something historical.
A one-person performance seems incredibly demanding. What led you to take the dive into this realm?
It was 2007. I had just got married, it was just a month later and a friend of mine found a bald spot on my head behind my ear. It freaked me out, and I was feeling really insecure. It also made me think about how women, especially black women, battle with identity, the media—not seeing our images portrayed in the media, which automatically makes you feel like the things you possess, your features, your skin color, is not something that’s desired. So, it made me want to do some kind of show that spoke to those trials and the things we have to deal with as black women. So I called my friend Anthony D’Juan, who I’ve been good friends with for a long time, a writer and a director in Sacramento, and I told him I wanted to do a one-woman play. For a few years, we worked on it, and I think it was 2010, he finished 3: Black Girl Blues. Before that, I had done a one-woman play at B Street while I was pregnant, called Neat, and that gave me the confidence that I could actually pull off a one-woman show. I remember opening night on that one, I was so terrified, thinking, “Oh my God, am I going to be able to hold the attention of all these people for an hour and 20 minutes?” And I think I was playing like 25 different characters, and I did It! I took my time, and it ended up being great practice for me as a performer.
Coming off of the first season of Rebel, what’s your overall takeaway from the experience?
It was cool to be in that part, and at the beginning of this phenomenon that’s happening now. A lot of black women are getting more opportunities to be at the forefront of television shows, to be looked at as heroes. We have Black Panther, and the female characters in that movie were just so powerful. You know, this is the era of the female. Whether it’s black females or females in general, this is our time. So I feel really blessed to have been a part of bringing a character to life that’s strong, and is a hero in her own right. Even with this play 3 and our planning to turn it into a TV show, it feels like perfect timing, because stories with women at the forefront are what people are looking for now. It’s what’s important in this time. It feels good to not be behind the times, to be actually in the times.
What can you tell us about your current activism work? What is #MoreThanAHashtag?
#MoreThanAHashtag is something I started in 2014–2015, around the time Mike Brown was killed by the police, and I just wanted to give artists an opportunity to express what they were feeling through their various forms of artistic expression, but also have a community aspect, where there would be a panel discussion, an opportunity for the community to express their hurt and their questions and frustrations. So it was a whole night of artistic expression. I really believe that art has the ability to change people’s lives and minds, it can help us to see things in a different way, it always has. It’s been used for revolution, throughout the history of the world.
Even in Sacramento, with Stephon Clark, murdered by the police … this stuff is not going away, and the only way it’s going to change is if we come together and sacrifice our time and our comfort in order to see these things changed. I’m living in L.A., but I’m super proud of Sacramento because I see the things that are being done, and I see people at city council meetings and talking to legislators and talking to people who can help change things between the community and the police, so I’m just hoping that the little things that I’m doing can somehow help in the larger scheme of things.
You’ll be hosting (and singing a little bit) at Soulful Saturdays on the 28th up here at Momo Sacramento. How did you become a part of that?
Soulful Saturdays is a live music event that was created by Damond and Melanie Owens. Melanie is one of my best friends. They started a few years ago, bringing talented musicians and people who sing to do a night of entertainment, and showcase the talent that’s in Sacramento, and I’ve always supported it. [My husband] started an event down here in Southern California about 13 years ago called My First Fridays, and we have some amazing, talented people that have been on tour with Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne and all these cool people. It’s like a big jam session with poets and comics. So when Melanie told me that her and Damond were doing something like this in Sacramento, I was super excited for them and supportive of it.
What are you most excited for in the coming year?
In the next year, I believe I will be producing and starring in my own TV show, so I’m going to be getting into producing, content creating, directing. I love to act and I will always do that, but in my heart I want to be a decision maker and someone who has real influence with what people are seeing on their television screens and how they’re perceiving woman and people of color.
See Danielle Moné Truitt live when she’ll host Soulful Saturdays on April 28 at Momo Sacramento (2708 J St.). Doors open at 5 p.m. Tickets start at $13 for this all-ages event and can be purchased through Momosacramento.com.
**This interview first appeared in print on pages 26 – 27 of issue #264 (April 23 – May 7, 2018)**